Super-fit athletes are viewed as the pinnacle of health, but could there be dangers lurking behind an obsession with fitness?
There have been many cases of top athletes succumbing to problems usually linked to unhealthy lifestyles. The legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes suffered a heart attack at 59, and in 1984 fitness guru Jim Fixx, credited with starting the jogging boom of the 1970s, collapsed and died of a heart attack aged 52 while on one of his regular runs.
Evidence is growing that pushing the body beyond normal limits may damage the heart. Austrian researchers found that, of 16 cyclists competing in the “Race across the Alps” a one-day event that covers 143 miles (230 km) at least one quarter showed heart muscle injury immediately afterward.
The mechanism behind this injury is unknown. Increased adrenaline levels during prolonged exercise may lead to the narrowing of coronary arteries, resulting in the death of some heart cells. It’s also possible that the body produces a certain enzyme during strenuous exercise, which could even trigger mini-heart attacks.
The scientists found that levels of this enzyme had increased in a third of cyclists. The largest increases were seen in the youngest, fastest cyclists who had trained the hardest.
But the researchers are unsure as to whether “extreme sports” carry significant heart health risks, as the effects are usually only mild and temporary. In the high-profile deaths which we hear about, the individuals were likely to have been genetically predisposed to heart attacks, and it was likely going to happen however fit they were.
However, genetics don’t by any means condemn us to the same fate as our relatives, and there are many steps we can take to reduce risks. Being fit will keep us more healthy regular exercisers have fewer cardiac failures than their sedentary counterparts.
Exercise reduces both the pulse rate and blood pressure, so minimizes strain on the heart as it pumps blood throughout the body. It also helps to keep the artery walls more elastic. A healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and reduced levels of saturated fat can stop troublesome blood clots from forming. Not smoking also decreases clot risk.
If you are regularly taking strenuous exercise, you should always monitor yourself for warning signs. The symptoms we all know about include chest discomfort or squeezing, throat tightness, and pain that radiates into the jaw or left arm. In addition, a sudden, unexplained drop-off in performance which is not associated with overtraining could also indicate that something is amiss, as could the sudden onset of heart palpitations.
Another danger of pushing yourself too far is taking it to extremes and becoming addicted to exercise. In rare cases, it can become an obsession which risks both your physical and mental health. If the thought of not working out for a day or two is scary, it may be time to re-evaluate. This problem is becoming more widespread with the increasing emphasis on thinness all around us. Body dissatisfaction may predispose us to rely too heavily on working out, even if we’re tired, ill, or injured.
To help yourself adjust to a healthier pattern, consider taking a break from the gym and begin a gentler form of exercise at home. Yoga, for example, will help you get back in touch with your body’s needs. To release the anxiety you may feel, consider meditating or building moments of relaxation into your day such as short walks or hot baths.
But if you find you’re unable to break the chains of obsessive exercise on your own, do seek help from an expert who can help you let go of it gradually, while uncovering the basis of your compulsion. Cognitive-behavior therapy can help retrain your thinking and eliminate the associated anxiety.
Neumayr G. et al. Effect of the “Race Across The Alps” in elite cyclists on plasma cardiac troponins I and T. American Journal of Cardiology, Vol. 89, February 15, 2002, pp. 484-86.